Smile! You're on hidden camera

With a million covert cameras in the US, is there any expectation of privacy anymore?

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A Manhattan restaurateur thinks an employee is dipping into the till.

Behind a crack in the brick facade - a little bigger than a pinhole - he installs a tiny camera with a wide-angle lens.

An estranged husband wants to know who's visiting his wife's home. He puts a camera in a soccer ball and plants it in the bushes out front.

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Money disappears from a businessman's accounting room. He installs a smoke detector with a camera inside and discovers his wife is the one doing the pilfering.

Welcome to the brave new video world, where the clock on the mantel or your neighbor's tie could easily hide a camera. In 1999, 125,000 "spy" cameras were sold in New York alone, more than triple the year before. Public use of surveillance cameras, almost unheard of a few years ago, has skyrocketed. Chicago is about to join other major cities, like Miami, Atlanta, and New York, that are giving police an extra set of eyes. Run that red light, and thanks to a hidden camera, you may get a ticket in the mail a month from now.

"People should know they are being watched, and there's no getting away with anything anymore," says Arielle Jamil, of the Counter Spy Shop in New York, one of the world's leading sellers of surveillance equipment. "Big brother is definitely watching more than people think."

Advocates note that cameras are inexpensive and effective crime-prevention tools. Britain, with 1.5 million closed-circuit TVs that track people from Mayfair to Trafalgar Square, is an undisputed world leader in surveillance. Studies there show the all-seeing eyes do cut crime. In 1998, after cameras were installed in one neighborhood, pickpocketing dropped 44 percent, and street crime by 20 percent.

But experts contend that the trouble just moves around the corner. And as the camera craze picks up momentum in America, with 1 million cameras nationwide, critics contend that "video voyeurism" raises new questions about privacy. When you walk down the street, do you have a right to know if the police or the local deli owners are watching you?

The rule of thumb has always been that, if you can see it from the street, it's fair game. But what about in your office? Or in the restaurant where you're eating? Or in your car as you're driving? "The explosion of video surveillance cameras around America has taken place without any public discussion about the pros and cons," says Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

While there are strict rules defining when a person may audiotape a conversation, that's not the case with video taping. Currently, the courts use the "expectation of privacy" standard. In other words, it's illegal to videotape where a person believes he or she has a right to privacy, such as a bathroom or a locker room. But what about in a fitting room or a hotel room?

One hotel chain, in an effort to catch a maid suspected of stealing, reportedly planted hidden cameras in a room. When they saw her trying on a guest's negligee, she was let go. But what about the guest?

"I don't think the general public has any idea about the pervasiveness, and that certainly plays into the calculation of what is an expectation of privacy," says Leslie Reis, interim director of the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. "The courts have been struggling to figure out whether technology has been changing those expectations."

Both Mr. Siegel and Ms. Reis agree that once people step outside their doors, they do forfeit their right to privacy. But the issue becomes less clear as technology becomes more intrusive.

Siegel also contends that, even in a public place, there should be a right to be "anonymous" - to associate with whomever, without worrying about who's keeping an archive of your actions. Privacy activists agree, and want legal protections to be sure the police and others do not misuse the tapes they're collecting.

"The courts have been very good in protecting people's constitutional rights when it involves audio surveillance and wiretaps, but cowards when it comes to video surveillance," says Bill Brown, a privacy activist. At a recent demonstration in Times Square, where 129 surveillance cameras capture the daily commotion, Mr. Brown stood on the corner of 47th and Broadway, where a camera operated by "Earthcam.com" allows anyone in the world with a computer and a modem to eavesdrop. "This camera isn't protecting anyone, it's used for voyeurism, plain and simple," says Brown.

In New York, one study estimates that a person is filmed an average of 73 times a day as they wander by the more than 2,400 cameras that hang from offices, apartments, and storefronts. New York's Civil Liberties Union is lobbying for at least some kind of regulation. They'd like to see all surveillance cameras listed on a public register, warning signs to alert people they're being filmed, strict rules about who gets access to surveillance tapes, and limits on how long they can be kept around.

Siegel is the first to admit that surveillance cameras can be helpful in fighting crime. He just wants to make sure the public is aware of the increasing use of cameras and that no one's rights are violated.

The spike in covert camera sales started four years ago, with the trial of British nanny Louise Woodward, who was convicted of manslaughter in the death of a Massachusetts infant. "Most cameras are used for more than security purposes; they're there for peace of mind," says Ms. Jamil. "A lot of people want to see what's going on in their home when they're not there - especially if they have kids."

Few would challenge a parent's right to protect their children. But some privacy experts worry about the impact of the all-seeing eyes. "It's a disturbing trend, bringing up children with the consciousness that they're going to be watched no matter what they do," says Jodi Beebe of the Privacy Rights Clearing House in San Diego. "I don't know what the impact is, but I do think we need to talk about it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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